Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Journey - Chapters 1 and 2


November 17, 2015

It is one year from today. I have recently finished the endless summer. Strike that. I have just completed a sometimes endless spring, summer and fall. This can all be laid at the feet of two people, my daughter and a person whom I have never met.

It was November 16, 2014 when the plot began to hatch in my brain. On that day, more precisely that evening, my daughter announced she was planning a trip in the coming months. She had recently told us of her frustration with not having been attentive to her inner voice asking, no demanding, she satisfy her need to explore. She had seen friends abandon the security of their jobs, their lives and go on adventures to places far and wide. She had been envious of their freedom, of their pictures, of their stories. And she knew that she would always feel a sense of frustration and more than a tinge of unhappiness if she did not follow in their footsteps, if not literally, then figuratively.

She had a friend who had recently embarked on his own journey of discovery, seemingly on a moment's notice. He had an itinerary, she had accumulated vacation days, sick days, personal days and if they could all be squeezed together, maybe she could fit a square peg of an everyday job into the round hole of an extended trip to somewhere new, somewhere intriguing.  She emailed her friend to see how and when she could meet up with him.

The following morning, today to be precise, I read a piece in the New York Times about a 31 year old lawyer who had abandoned his profession (okay, he had gotten fired from his job) and decided he would spend the 2014-15 basketball season following his beloved team, the seemingly hapless and hopeless Knicks of New York.  82 games would be chronicled in a blog describing, one can only assume, the highs, the lows, the food, the lumpy mattresses and the eternal question of how Phil Jackson could have come out of retirement for this.

I have a little, actually a lot, of obsessive compulsive disorder in me. One of my many focuses is numbers. How many miles until I get to my destination, how many steps from my car to the door, how many times 31 (the stranger's age) goes into 62 (my age) or 82 (the length of an NBA season) goes into 162 (the number of games played by an MLB team). The mathematical symmetry was almost perfect, far too obvious to ignore. This stranger was a lawyer, as am I. He liked to write, and  had an apparent need to advise the entire universe as did I (ok the five or so people who actually read my writing) on his thoughts profound or insipid. This man, this random article in the paper, the timing of this piece and of my daughter's decision to stop suppressing her desires, all of this could mean only one thing for me: I was about to embark on the most unusual and unorthodox journey of my life. I would be attending every Yankee games of the 2015 season.

I rationalized it this way: there were only 81 away games during the Major League season, spread out over seven months. Almost all weekday games were at night, which meant that when I was home it would not interfere with my work schedule, and even on the road I could attend to my law practice remotely and barely skip a beat. The weekends were not for work (or so I told myself) and thus games played from Friday night through Sunday afternoon would have little if any impact on my giving needed attention to my clients. The travel would be compacted into no more than a dozen trips, and never more than 10 days or so at a clip. All in all, it was eminently doable.

And then there was the small issue of informing my wife of 37 years of my impending plans. She had never attended even one of the approximately 500 Yankee games I had seen with our children over the past decades, and for the 1000 or so Yankee games I had been to during my lifetime, she could counter with a number that would certainly fit neatly on all her fingers, without need to resort to use of her toes. She did not discourage my interest in the sport or my time away from her. Rather, as our law office consisted only of the two of us, and had been that way for three decades, she was glad to be rid of me. In fact, we joked we had been married for 75 years if you added up all the waking moments in each others presence.

Yet, there was still some trepidation as I approached her with my thoughts. I would be turning 63 during the first month of the 2015 season and wasn't this idiocy something that should be the product of a much younger brain and body? Wasn't this the time in our lives where I should be focused on her wishes instead of thinking only of my own unfulfilled dreams? Wasn't it time I grew up?

But my wife is not built that way. She understood that whether it was something that burned inside a 29 year old daughter, a 31 year old stranger, or a 62 year old husband, it was not to be summarily ignored. "You owe me big time" would be her tongue in cheek response and about as close as she would come to putting up resistance. She truly did want to make my life happy, and I don't think I ever fully understood that until the moment we had finished our discussion and she had given her blessing to my journey to nowhere (and everywhere).

I could barely have chosen a worse year to follow the trials and tribulations of the Bronx Bombers. I had been weaned on Mickey, Whitey and Yogi. I was a child of the 1950's and early 1960's, the time of Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob, Dobie Gillis and of course, annual trips to the World Series. There was an inevitability to greatness, to success. I still recall 1959 as a tragedy, when the Chicago White Sox appeared as the American League champions in the Fall Classic. Those were days of transistor radios, Mel Allen and Red Barber. Those were times I woke up in the morning, rushed to the television set to learn if my mood was to be good or sour. If the Yankees had won the night before, I listened to the sports report as often as I could before heading off to school.

Mantle was my hero, my first and most enduring. No matter the revelations in later years, the women, the booze, the dark side that should have diminished my respect and reverence. It was a first love, and as the songs tell us, there can be little better. He will forever have that impish smile, the Bunyanesque power and that little hitch in his gait caused by an infamous drain in the outfield.

In contrast, 2014 marked the end of the Fab four plus one (I understand that Bernie Williams preceded Derek, Andy, Jorge and Mariano but they were all five fingers of a glove). The 2014 season came to a close not with the final out of the World Series between two teams I have already forgotten but with that line drive to right field that brought home the winning run in the final at bat for number two at the Stadium.

What remained at year's end was a group without an identity, a seemingly random collection of has beens, never wases, and question marks. Hitch my star to a returning A-Rod? Please. Sell my soul for another dead pull hitter like a Teixeira or a McCann, both of whom seemed overwhelmed by the shift and the shifting tides that brought their averages and their swagger down to that of the most pedestrian of back up performers? Find a diamond in the rough ready to be polished? Apart from Betances and his resurrection, there was a paucity of talent throughout the system. Hamstrung by overblown salaries for the geriatric generation and the departure of Robby Cano, this was a ship that was listing and ready to sink.

But this was the squad, come hell or high water, that I was going to give my time and a good deal of my money to follow. And money would prove another uncomfortable part of the equation. I am neither rich nor spoiled. I do not need the finest accommodations or the best of meals. The Holiday Inn and Chipotle are more than suitable for my needs. But even so, this would take some planning to fit within my budget. What was my budget? After all, I was nearing that age where I should at least give contemplation to retirement, and instead of being frugal I was going on a scavenger hunt for a meaningful October.

In putting together my game plan, I was the fortunate recipient of a general manager who made Theo Epstein look like a helpless child. My son is the absolute master of taking a nickel and making it look like a quarter, of locating every bargain, every gimmick and giveaway. If there was a deal to be had, he knew it. If there wasn't one there, he could create it. And so he studied the airfares, the hotels, the car rentals. He found friends within the area, and put notices out on the internet to help an old man in an odd and improbable dream. He looked to see what bargains could be found at the various ballparks, and devised the best strategies for the places where the games were always sold out in advance. This was my version of "it takes a village."  If I was the orchestra, my son was the maestro.

The pitchers reported to camp in late February of 2015, and the full team shortly thereafter. As they went through their paces, I had to get ready for the rigors of the baseball season in my own life. Clients were contacted, explaining what I was about to do, and assuring them that though I would be out of the office for periods of time, my work would not suffer and the level of attention I would provide would remain unchanged. Some were skeptical, some business was undoubtedly lost, but for the main part, I think those who knew me trusted in my intentions. I did get some humorous presents, like the client who sent me a Yankee uniform with my name and number 62/63 on the back. I was not to be deterred and thus tried to defuse all possible bombs during the latter part of the winter. By mid- March, I was in good shape, as if I had performed well during spring training and made the squad headed to the Stadium for opening day.

The same could not be said for the 2015 version of the Bronx Bummers. A-Rod looked more and more each day like a 40 year old man with bad hips and only the most distant relationship to the steroid induced monster of the previous decade. Losses piled up throughout spring training, nothing new or unexpected, and certainly not with the same implications as in the days that King George ruled. But still, the expectations heading into this season were reminiscent more of the Horace Clarke days, then the recent glorious era. And thus was the state of affairs as I tidied up my desk, only several weeks short of my 63rd birthday, and began my spring, summer and fall tango with the boys down on the field.


It was 41 degrees at 1:07 PM on April 6, 2015 in New York City. The sky was a gray, heading towards black. The drizzle was constant, the cold was penetrating, the forecast was ominous. I took my seat in the upper deck just past the left field foul pole, the best seat I could get in my pre-determined price range for the full season package. I had decided that I would try not to miss a pitch, to be part of the process from first moment to last of this my season as a Yankee. And I would do this alone, without companionship or divided attention. My dates were the nine men who had stood at the ready on the diamond. Even though they had no idea, we were going to be joined at the hip for better or worse til game 162 do us part. As they took off their caps to give honor to America, it began.

The Toronto Blue Jays were the opponent, but as I would learn throughout most of this season, they were virtually irrelevant. This would not be a study of the hits and errors, the pitch-outs and strike-outs, the do's and the don'ts, the trials and tribulations or even the wins and losses. This would become a study or perseverance, of dedication to a task at hand, of the ability to move forward on days when it was hard to get out of bed and harder to go to the ballpark. It would be a parallel universe occupied by ballplayer and fan, as we both somehow found the inner reserve to do whatever it was that needed to be done.

The rain descended with a vengeance in the top of the fourth inning and the water soon ran off the tarp in torrents. On most other days, good sense would have dictated an end to the battle, but this was not most other days. It was a 97 minute rain delay and I stood shivering in the third floor concourse, running into the bathroom as often as I could for shelter from the storm.  The lounges, the restaurants, the places of creature comfort, were not available to those like me who had not ponied up the requisite dollars for our seats. It was stark reminder of the class war that had descended even into the bowels of Yankee Stadium.

When the game renewed, the starting pitchers were gone, the outfield was sloppy and the play even sloppier. When all the crooked numbers were added up, it was a glorious start for the home team on an inglorious afternoon. The Yankee record was a clean one win and no losses.

As I left the Stadium and headed home to New Jersey by public transportation (the cost of parking a car would have blown a huge hole in the monies allotted for this endeavor) I wondered how I would have the stamina to withstand the rigors of April, and somehow survive until the warmth descended from the heavens.

The next day, Tuesday was an off day and Wednesday the cold rain started early in the morning and would not stop until deep into the dark of night. The first rainout of the season allowed me two uninterrupted days in the office. Thursday night's game brought an end to a very short winning streak and the Blue Jays and Yankees finished their initial tug of war all even. On deck, the Red Sox.

For so many years the Red Sox were enemies in name only. We had to have rivalries, and even though the Yankees always prevailed in the end, Boston was our favorite target. But as much as we hated them, they despised us for our winning ways and our haughty attitude. That would all change in 2004. I was eye witness to one of the worst losses in Yankee lore, and the future pinstriper, Johnny Damon was among the chief culprits on that terrible day when the world changed forever. The Yankees were out of the playoffs and the team that was forever not good enough, suddenly was. With the World Series victory that year, the dynamic was altered and the level of animosity escalated.

Now, in 2015 it was possible that these were the two worst teams in the American League East. The Sox had been bi-polar in the past several seasons, alternating from worst to best, and no one was quite sure whether Jekyll or Hyde would surface this year. And the tension and drama was therefore somewhat muted on yet another unusually cold evening on April 10. I was bundled in my ski underwear, ski hat, ski gloves, ski sweater and ski jacket for the first pitch, and I was still cold. I took out the hand warmers but the chill had already descended into the core of my being.

CC Sabathia had been a dominant pitcher for the first decade or so of his career. Huge, at six foot seven and almost 300 pounds, he had a fastball that matched his size. Now he had trouble finding 90 on the radar gun, and had become a finesse pitcher, relying more on a change-up and guile than a dominating repertoire. It was not an easy transition and it had not gone smoothly over the past season or two. He was now the number three starter and fading fast.

The Red Sox were very happy to deal with this diminished version. They battered him around for six runs in less than four innings. Game one of this series to the Bahston crew. Yankees fall below the .500 mark.

The weekend proved sunny and warmer, but the results were no different. By late Sunday, April 12, 2015, the team had fallen to one win and four losses, was the embarrassed owner of a four game skid and had sunk to the bottom of the standings. As the Red Sox left town feeling pretty good about themselves, the Yankees slinked away for their (and my) first road trip of the year.

I would be away for 10 days, on a journey that would take me to Baltimore, Tampa and Detroit.Accordingly, I packed for cold weather, warm weather and colder weather. I would have one scheduled off day during this time to give full attention to the rest of my life, but other than that, my world would mainly revolve around the first pitch, and the last.

As much as I had been a lifelong fan of the game, I had visited very few stadiums. Apart from Boston and Oakland,  I was a virgin when it came to an insider's knowledge of these diamonds and most of these locales. I had the good fortune to be friends with a family that had done what I only had dreamed of, going to games in every major league park, American and National. They had, if not an encyclopedic knowledge of the good, the bad and the ugly of each stop along my path, at least a working one. And so I enlisted their aid. I learned of places to go during the day, foods to eat once at the game and what to anticipate from the local crowd if I started to root for my team in a foreign venue. It would prove a resource of great value.

I flew down to Washington and stayed with my cousins for the Baltimore series. I was already noticing that my back was beginning to tighten. Several years before I had undergone surgery for two herniated discs. I had religiously avoided taking care of my back since then, ignoring the problem at every opportunity until pain reared its ugly head. And so, I began a season in which getting in and out of a car, sitting cramped in a plane, and moving around fitfully in my seat at the games, became an increasing issue. If I had been a player I might have opted for the 15 day disabled list at various points along the way. But that was not an option in my quest. Once I reached my cousin's, after greetings and gentle hugs were exchanged, I asked for the heating pad.

The road proved not much friendlier to the Yankees than home cooking had. Each of the teams along the way seemed to have more depth, more power, more consistency than the pretenders in pinstripes. The glory days seemed a very distant memory and at the end of the time away from home, the team and I were both dragging. With one more rain-out, nine games had been completed during this stretch and the Yankee record stood at a wholly unimpressive five wins and nine losses as we boarded our separate planes back to New York. The team batting average was a ghastly .235. A grand total of 11 home runs had been hit by this punchless crew. I was exhausted already and there was still one week to go in April.


Anonymous said...

You do seem to have plenty of time on your hands. But it was a very good read. Let's hope for a better ending.


Robert said...

Not so much time on my hands, as this seems to be a late night or early morning endeavor. But it is an intriguing idea, at least to me, and I hope to follow this fictional tale through to the conclusion of the 2015 season.